Lakers win often, rarely sweep

SALT LAKE CITY -- There aren't many situations in which Alec Baldwin can serve as a motivational figure for an NBA team in the playoffs. Yet there he is every year, a slightly younger and thinner version of the one you see on "30 Rock," providing a rallying cry for the Los Angeles Lakers as they head into the most important game of each playoff series -- the closeout game.

"A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing," says Baldwin's character, Blake, in the 1992 film "Glengarry Glen Ross." "Always be closing, always be closing."

The clip is usually spliced into the video the Lakers watch the morning of a closeout game and has been used ever since Phil Jackson came to Los Angeles before the 1999-2000 season.

Baldwin's seven-minute monologue, in which he pulls out a pair of brass balls and tells Jack Lemmon to put down his cup of coffee because "Coffee's for closers," is not only the high-water mark of Baldwin's acting career but usually brings out the best in the Lakers, who have now won their past five closeout opportunities.

"That's what we stand by," said Lakers forward Lamar Odom after the game. "ABC, Always Be Closing. That's something that we stand by."

No closeout game, however, is as rare for the Lakers as one to complete a sweep, which they did against the Jazz in a 111-96 victory in Utah to advance to the Western Conference finals for the third consecutive year.

The result may have been expected after the Lakers took a 3-0 series lead Saturday but hasn't been as common as you might think. As rich as the Lakers' history is, the team has only completed 13 sweeps in 100 best-of-seven series since its first season in 1948-49.

The Jazz, meanwhile, had never been swept in a seven-game series in their history, despite advancing to the postseason all but three times since 1984.

You knew the Lakers were going to win this series; you just didn't expect them to make history and reinvent themselves in the process.

Even the staunchest Lakers fan in recent years has had a hard time predicting a Lakers sweep, usually picking their team to win in five, six or seven games. After all, the Lakers have always been good for a stinker on the road. At least they used to be. Since losing two straight at Oklahoma City in the first round, the Lakers have won six straight and, more importantly, three straight on the road, two in closeout situations.

"I think we're focused now," said Lakers center Andrew Bynum. "When it comes to playoff basketball we have another gear, and we're playing like that right now as a team. We just picked it up. We've been there before. We understand what it's like to lose a playoff series, to lose a championship, so when we get to the playoffs we're focused."

This isn't the sleepwalking, lollygagging, uninspired Lakers team you wrote off at some point during the season; this is now a broom-wielding demolition machine that doesn't care if everyone -- including oddsmakers who have made them underdogs in their past five playoff road games -- thinks they are unable to stay motivated every night.

The odds of anyone outside the Lakers' locker room predicting a sweep in the playoffs after the way they played during the second half of the season would have been as unlikely as Ron Artest breaking out of his shooting slump. Yet here they are, playing as well as they have all season.

"This is the first sweep that I've been a part of," Bynum said. "It feels good to get that team out of here and focus on the next team. Now we have a week off, which is good for me."

Not only did the sweep put the Lakers back in the Western Conference finals; it also gave the team some much-needed rest with the opening game of their series with the Phoenix Suns not taking place until Monday night. That's at least three more days of rest for Bynum's knee; Kobe Bryant's ankle, knee and finger; Artest's thumb and shoulder; and the myriad of other injuries that seem to be plaguing the Lakers these days.

"We have a mantra that's gone on in this organization since I've come here that any more playoff games that you play than you have to is always an opportunity for someone to get hurt, or something to happen that's going to derail your chances," Jackson said. "So you really want to take care of the thing that's right at hand right now and squash any hope and cut it off as quick as you can."

Los Angeles certainly did that against the Jazz, jumping out to a 22-point lead in the second quarter before allowing the Jazz to come back in the third quarter and cut the lead to five points. That would be as much of a consolation prize as the Jazz and their fans would get, as the Lakers pushed their lead back out to 22 in the fourth quarter and sent fans heading for the exits before the end of the game.

The Lakers will now move on to play the Suns, who eliminated them from the first round of the playoffs in 2006 and '07 before the Lakers began their current run at three consecutive conference finals. Back then the Lakers were a one-man show, with Kwame Brown instead of Pau Gasol in the paint. Clearly a lot has changed since the days when Smush Parker was running the point, but the memories of losing a 3-1 series lead to the Suns in 2006 still remains fresh in Odom's mind.

"I'm like an elephant. I don't forget much," said Odom with a smile when asked about possible payback against the Suns.

The Suns series was one of the few times in Jackson's tenure when Baldwin's motivational speech didn't work no matter how many times he replayed it.

"I remember he kept playing that when we had a 3-1 series lead against Phoenix," Luke Walton said. "We're better closers now."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com